It has been suggested that former Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha got away with his murderous rule for as long as he did (1993 – 1998) because it was during that time that Nigeria played in its first ever World Cup (1994), won its first African Nations Cup in 14 years (1994), and defeated Argentina to become the first African country to win the Olympic soccer gold medal (1996). According to this line of thinking, Nigerians tolerated the despot because we were hypnotised by our unbelievably good fortune on the soccer field.

Those sentiments are exaggerated of course, but they strike at the heart of a truth: that soccer is one of the few gratifying diversions in a continent known mostly for its political and economic turmoil.

You might find further evidence of this in a recent report published by the Guardian. In it Annie Kelly writes that "Foreign migrants and refugees in South Africa have been warned to prepare for a wave of xenophobic attacks as soon as the final whistle of the World Cup blows". Ethel Musonza, a Zimbabwean woman, is quoted as saying: "They say they will come after the World Cup and they will kill us. These people are serious, they are organised, they know where we live. They say they won't do anything during the World Cup because of the foreign tourists but afterwards the police will step aside and some of us will get killed."

In other words, the South Africans are putting their xenophobic impulses on hold – and have done so since the last bloody episode in 2008 – only because of the World Cup.

A short history: two years ago this month, tens of foreigners were murdered, and thousands displaced in South Africa, in a series of mindless attacks on foreigners. Most of the victims were believed to be Zimbabweans (there are – or were – an estimated three million Zimbabweans in South Africa).

Back then one young South African man told the Guardian's Chris McGreal: "It is unfortunate that people got killed. But they had to go. They do not belong here taking jobs. Let them go back to Zimbabwe and solve their own problems instead of bringing them here. We have enough problems of our own."

Africans issuing red cards to other Africans is certainly not a new, or recent, phenomenon. Twenty-five years ago, Nigeria's south-western border teemed with hundreds of thousands of Ghanaian refugees, expelled by the Nigerian government, a saga tellingly summed up by the enduring Nigerian phrase: "Ghana Must Go!" Fifteen years earlier, Ghana had drawn first blood by expelling hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants, the bulk of whom were Nigerians, ostensibly because the foreigners were becoming a burden to the struggling Ghanaian economy.

South Africa however stands out for the bloodletting that accompanied its own xenophobia. It is indeed disheartening to note that South Africa's black people, themselves long-term victims of institutionalised oppression from a white minority, would lose all sense of empathy and visit wanton violence on other black people. But that is another story, for another day.

Seeing the good that soccer does on a continent full of frustrations and tensions, I think that now is the time to take maximum advantage of the immense goodwill that will pervade the continent as the World Cup kicks off.

One good example: someone ought to let the Super Eagles (Nigeria's national team) realise that a convincing defeat of Argentina in Johannesburg on June 12 (Nigeria has never managed a win in its 3 encounters with Argentina at national team level) will go a long way in "redeeming" a date laden with negative associations – it was on June 12, 1993 that Nigerians went to the polls to vote in presidential elections widely judged to be the least controversial in its tortured history, but which were inexplicably voided by military dictator Ibrahim Babangida.

And how about getting Fifa to realise that it wouldn't be a bad idea to make the unprecedented move of transforming this year's World Cup into a year-long fiesta, considering that might be the only way to buy "extra time" for South Africa's vulnerable immigrant population?